An English novel, a Confederate general,
and an heir
by Jack Neely
When he came to America in 1842, Charles Dickens had been appalled at the
pig-chasing, tobacco-spitting roughness of New York City. We can only guess
what he would have thought of Knoxville.
Dickens never dropped by, but he had more influence on Knoxville than most
mayors have. Whether he would have liked us or not, we liked himhis
books, at least. There's circumstantial evidence that Knoxville began celebrating
an often-forgotten European holiday in a big way just because we read a Dickens
story called "A Christmas Carol." After its publication in 1844, Knoxville
celebrated Christmas more consistently than ever before.
Another popular Dickens book came out in 1852, and a wealthy young Knoxville
man named Robert Armstrong christened his stylish new West Knoxville home
by its title. He called it Bleak House.
It's hard to know whether Armstrong and Dickens would have gotten along.
Dickens was an abolitionist; Armstrong owned slaves. But then, when the Civil
War came along, Dickens became a distant Confederate sympathizer; Armstrong
was reportedly a Union man.
The grandson of two Knoxville pioneer heroes, Armstrong himself was a soft-living
romantic. Attended by servants, Armstrong lived off his inheritance and dabbled
in banking, politicsand, more than anything else, art. He also dreamed
of his "beau ideal"the perfect woman.
In the early 1850s, he'd taken an indulgent year-long tour of America, from
Texas to Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C. We still have his fascinatingly
vivid Private Journal and Jottings Down from that trip. En route,
he was dismayed to note that New York state was every bit as beautiful as
home, but New Yorkers' houses showed "cultivation and wealth so far in advance"
that they "made me sigh for similar things for East Tennessee."
That sigh may have influenced his care in designing his home on Kingston
Pike. It was not larger but fancier than his dad's house down the road, with
a riverfront porch and, on the east side, a rare three-story tower with tall,
narrow Gothic windows.
"Bleak House" isn't a moniker most folks would pick for a home to raise a
young family in. It was only a little like the huge country manor described
in the new Dickens novel. It shared some of its endearing eccentricity, like
the stepped-up-and-down second floor. And that tower, maybe.
The house was maybe five years old that November when Confederates under
General Longstreet were advancing rapidly along Kingston Pike. When a middle-aged
man in a gray uniform and a big black beard tied his horse to a stake in
the front yard, Armstrong's wife Louisa let him in the house. Armstrong made
General James Longstreet was famous as "Lee's War Horse," but here he wasn't
working for Lee. He and his First Corps, veterans of Gettysburg, were under
strange orders from Braxton Bragg, the nervous commander of the western campaign.
Longstreet's mission was to re-seize Knoxville, abandoned only two months
ago. Some think Longstreet accepted the unexpected Knoxville assignment mainly
to get away from Bragg, who was busy losing Chattanooga. After three trying
weeks trooping through an East Tennessee November, dealing with rivalrous
officers and uncooperative citizens, Longstreet was finally in sight of the
old capital Knoxville.
Longstreet was likely attracted to this house for its location near the front
lines, its unusually thick brick wallsand its tower. With a third-floor
tower from which you could see the city itself, this solid house overlooking
the river must have seemed ideal. Longstreet posted snipers in that tower
while, on the ground floor, Longstreet and his old schoolmate and right-hand
man Gen. Lafayette McLaws set up shop. Here they unrolled maps and made one
of the worst plans in their careers.
It was to be an all-out frontal assault on a nearly impregnable city. Before
dawn on November 29, Longstreet sent these Gettysburg veterans straight into
an icy hell of tripwires, an impossibly deep dry moat, and a barrage of gunfire
and grenades. In the single 20-minute Battle of Fort Sanders, more than 100
Confederate soldiers were killed, with several hundred more missing or wounded.
In this house, James Longstreet recognized the magnitude of his failure,
compounded by news of Bragg's loss of Chattanooga. After Knoxville and his
two weeks at Bleak House, Longstreet fired his old friend McLaws and offered
to resign his commission. "If this field is to be held with a view to a future
operation," he wrote as he fled Knoxville, "I earnestly desire that some
other officer be sent to the command." Historians call it the low point of
Longstreet's command. Longstreet might have named this Bleak Housea
even if he'd never heard of Charles Dickens.
Robert Armstrong reappeared as Longstreet left and returned to his gentlemanly
life of music and painting. While most of Knoxville tried to forget the war,
patching up bullet holes and filling in trenches, Armstrong, the romantic,
preserved his battle-scarred Bleak House with its bloody tower, the craters
sprayed across the east side, the bullet hole in the staircase, the cannonball
hole in the living room. Suddenly it had more Dickensian eccentricities than
it had when it was built. They were all intact when an elderly Louisiana
insurance man named Longstreet visited the place in 1890.
Today, maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Bleak House
is one of the nation's most vividly preserved architectural relics of the
Civil War. But there are questions about the long-term future of Bleak House.
Watch this space.